The Iraqi government has long claimed that uranium-tipped American shells used during the Gulf War are to blame for an upsurge in cancer deaths and birth defects among Iraqi civilians. Did the United States expose Iraqis to radiation?
The United States did, indeed, shower Iraq with well over 300 tons' worth of depleted uranium ordnance during the Gulf War. Because of its high density, DU—a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process at nuclear reactors—is particularly effective in piercing armored vehicles. DU shells incinerate on impact, leaving behind a dusty residue that is primarily composed of the isotope Uranium-238. The Gulf War marked the first widespread use of DU ordnance; they've since been fired in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina by NATO forces. An estimated 15 nations, primarily in the West, are believed to possess DU weapons.
Many scientists fear that this dust, when inhaled or ingested via contaminated water, emits radiation inside the lungs or lymph nodes, leading to cancer and other severe ailments. Iraq's health ministry claims that cancer rates have soared by 400 percent since 1991, and victims of "Gulf War syndrome" in the United States and Europe have frequently ascribed their maladies to DU exposure. Last year, Doug Rokke, former head of the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium Project, told the British Parliament that one-fifth of his Gulf War team—which examined Iraqi vehicles hit by DU fire—has since died of various lung diseases. Late last month, during his visit to Baghdad, Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., characterized DU's long-term impact on Iraq as "horrific and barbaric."
The Pentagon has dismissed a direct link between DU residue and cancer. It often points to a 1999 RAND Corp. study that monitored the health of Gulf War veterans exposed to DU and concluded that no link between kidney disease and DU had been found. The Department of Defense also argues that DU dust is less toxic than naturally occurring uranium, of which there is typically 2 to 4 tons per square mile of top soil. A British researcher has theorized that any up-tick in Iraqi cancer rates is due not to DU pollution but rather to Saddam Hussein's use of sulfur mustard gas during the Iran-Iraq War.
The World Health Organization published its own report in April of 2001. The organization agreed that a link between DU exposure and cancer has yet to be established but cautioned that its study relied heavily on military data. "Some scientists would like to see a larger body of independently—i.e., non-military—funded studies to confirm the current viewpoint," the WHO paper stated. Researchers should have plenty of time to accumulate the necessary data; the half-life for Uranium-238 is 4.4 billion years.